As I write this, I am sitting a few feet away from my father, who is resting somewhat comfortably in his hospital bed. I’m not sure anyone can really rest very well in such a bed; what distant memory I have of one from my childhood reminds me that they never seem to be able to be positioned in just the right way, or in a way that I could withstand for very long. Maybe it was my youthful impatience.
Dad’s comfort is further challenged by the fact that we are waiting for him to be taken down for a procedure, and waiting far too long. He was checked in here on Friday night (three days ago) and has been doing little more than waiting for something since he was admitted. Waiting for his MD to come in and speak with him. Waiting for his heart doctor to come in and speak with him. Waiting for a nurse to come in and either bring him some news about when his procedure is scheduled or help him with something.
In the time I have spent with him here in his room over the weekend and today, I have decided that the medical profession has a two-pronged approach to their care: waiting things out might possibly make the problem go away (what I call “Head In the Sand Treatment”), and patients are people to merely be tolerated through their stay, and occasionally placated by doctors with ambiguity and thinly-veiled condescension in their voice. The nurses are nice and well-meaning enough, but it was about all I could do to keep from shredding his heart doctor in the brief time he was here, restrain myself from lecturing him on the pompous pratfalls of his God Complex. I remembered, before I vomited that all over him, that I would have been just as pompous to do so.
My father, lying there in his bed, is not quite the same person I have known most of my life. I always remember him looking much more physically fit than I see him now, which is the way I think we all want to envision our parents. But I have this idea about Kilgore men, only a theory really, that we seem to be blessed with a gene or two that slows our aging process, or at least the appearance of it. I am sure that theory is wishful thinking on my part, but it has its roots in how I remember my dad being fairly fit, trim, and active for much of my adult life. Attractive too. Okay, so maybe I am wishing.
Dad doesn’t need much from me here. We talk from time to time, but neither of us feel the need to fill the room with conversation. There is a comfort between us in the silence. It’s not an ignorance of anything needing to be said, but more a fulfillment created by just being around each other. Reassurance through small talk is not so necessary between two men of our age, and our shared history creates more of a palpable connection that hangs in the air between us. Conversation may only disturb that, interrupt the silent movie memories that are a part of our current stream of consciousness.
I do have something I want to talk about with Dad, but now is not the time. He is due any time now to be taken down for a heart catheterization to help diagnose what is causing his recent spate of coronary issues, and I worry that if I raise the subject with him now, it will only raise his anxieties. There is no need. The waiting already has sufficiently rasied his anxieties.
A few years ago, dad asked me to be the one to make any decisions should he ever be incapacitated to do so himself during a crisis or medical procedure. I was flattered that he placed such faith in me by asking me to do so, but because I was not sure if I was the son closest to him at the time, I had to ask him why he chose me. His reasoning, he said, was that because he trusted my perspective on life—my views on religion and the afterlife—I would most likely make a decision he thought would mirror his wishes if it ever came to that.
At that time, we only had a brief discussion about what his wishes would be, and I asked him to either have his wishes documented, or have his lawyer draft a power or attorney to have on hand. Dad had told me, in the best way he could from the terminology of his days, he did not ever want to live “like a vegetable.” I knew roughly what he meant by that, even though I knew it was not specific enough for any doctor, or hospital administrator, or lawyer to understand if it were ever to involve them. And at the time we first discussed this, there were plenty of cases in the courts and in the news that made those specifics that much more important.
But I didn’t ask dad for more specifics because it was a difficult conversation to have. The details seemed both too morbid and too uncomfortable to voice openly, and he never volunteered anything either. I suppose neither one of us really wanted to deal with it in anything more than the abstract, the future, or possibly something that would never have to be. About the only time it seemed to come up was when he was having a health issue, and I wasn’t sure if that was the best time to talk about it. When each health problem was over, I didn’t want to seem like I was unnecessarily worried, or create that same worry for him. Where your parents are concerned, does the timing for that conversation ever seem right?
I’ve had some time to think about it this morning though, and sort through those thoughts well enough to commit them to paper, and to this medium. I told myself I had to, even if I couldn’t worry him with that kind of a conversation right now. I also knew I really had to be well prepared for that kind of a moment in case it ever does come, because I will need a clarity and a resolve in that moment that will be very hard to summon up, and which will produce a decision that will also be acceptable and clear to everyone concerned.
The best I’ve been able to come up with in our five hours plus of waiting—what I would ask of myself and of the medical staff—is this:
- What is the raw end result? Would the medical condition or problem or illness be over when we are done with this specific choice with which we are immediately faced?
- What would be the potential life extension my father receives as a benefit?
- What will be the quality of life for my father after the fact, as compared to what he defines as a quality life? I know my father well enough to know he would not enjoy life if he could not communicate or interact with those he loves, even if they could communicate with him. I also know that if he were able to communicate, but were not ambulatory, he would carry on. In the case of the latter, he would also want me to revisit Question One and Question Two again.
- What strain, or effort, or pain would he have to live with after the fact? I know this seems redundant of Question Three, but I am convinced that pain and suffering have to be considered separately from issues of mobility and consciousness. Still, in addressing this I have to go back and revisit almost all of my other questions.
- What, if anything, would Dad be left to deal with after the fact that would be outside the normal process of aging?
And in the end, I, as the decision maker, and we, as a family, cannot be a part of the equation. It can’t be about how much more of our father we would want, or how much more of his time with us we would want. Likewise, it can’t be about the effects it might have on our lives, decided either way, because you cannot understand some of those things beforehand, without living them. Like a friend of mine just recently said, you never know how strong you can be, until you have to be.
© 2010 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.